Jihadists vs Fatah: The Trojan Horse in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps

Firas Shoufi, The Cradle, August 15, 2023 —

The recent outbreak of violence in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp has sparked debate on security concerns, external machinations, Palestinian civil rights, and the fundamental question of the right to return.

The deadly clashes that erupted in late July in the Ain al-Hilweh camp, a prominent Palestinian refugee settlement in southern Lebanon, have cast a hot spotlight on the long-neglected issues of Palestinian arms and the rights of Palestinians in Lebanon.

Despite years of relative quiet, Ain al-Hilweh, the largest among the 13 Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, has been no stranger to such clashes over the past two decades.

The Lebanese authorities have erected a formidable concrete barrier around the camp in recent years – drawing comparisons to the Israeli apartheid wall in the occupied-West Bank – which was ostensibly built to fortify security and stymie the infiltration of jihadist elements into Ain al-Hilweh.

Fatah vs jihadists in Lebanon

On the morning of 29 July, in retaliation for the death of his brother, a Fatah gunman opened fire on a group of jihadists who had recently returned from Idlib, Syria. Intent on assassinating militant Mahmoud Khalil, he fatally shot Khalil’s comrade instead.

The retaliatory gunfire that followed claimed the life of Fatah Brigadier General Abu Ashraf al-Armoushi and four of his companions in an ambush. The camp swiftly transformed into a battlefield, with Fatah and the Palestinian National Security – a PLO-affiliated military faction that collaborates closely with Lebanese security services – in gunfights against jihadist groups like ISIS, Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham, and the Muslim Youth.

Machine guns roared, and mortars thundered as the clashes ravaged the camp, causing severe damage to Palestinian property. The impact of the skirmish even reached the streets of nearby Sidon, where shells left their mark.

The fighting claimed 13 lives, mostly from Fatah, while over 50 armed combatants and civilians were injured before a truce was declared. In its aftermath, Fatah emerged militarily weakened and disjointed, grappling with substantial losses. While the jihadists fought cohesively and without significant human losses, they depleted part of their weapons stockpile, which is difficult to replace quickly, and have been thrust into the national spotlight and come under increasing security pressure.

The Lebanese military also incurred setbacks in the fray, as a fortified position fell, and Lebanese soldiers sustained injuries, prompting the deployment of special forces around the camp to quell further escalation.

Palestinians caught in legal limbo 

In recent years, Ain al-Hilweh has evolved into a haven for jihadists seeking sanctuary from Syria and Iraq’s turbulent conflicts, and from clashes with the Lebanese army in the northern city of Tripoli.

Few of these militants are Palestinians; the majority are Lebanese and Syrians. The irony for many Lebanese political parties who spoke to The Cradle is that jihadists continue to infiltrate the camp today, despite the tight security measures around it. Lebanese military sources also confirm that it is impossible to deny entry to people, no matter how stringent the security measures they take.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian population within the camps is ensnared in a labyrinth of “legal” persecution, a plight exacerbated by the reluctance of Lebanese authorities to bestow full civil rights – including citizenship – on Palestinians, in fear that this may inadvertently pave the way for their permanent resettlement within Lebanese borders.

Over the years, numerous laws have been proposed to grant legitimate rights to Palestinians who have lived in Lebanon for generations, but MPs don’t dare to bring these to parliament for a vote. The Christian political parties fear that bestowing these rights will further sway Lebanon’s demographic in favor of Muslims, given the Muslim majority within the camps.

Beyond the confines of the camps, armed Palestinian factions maintain their presence in stategic locations around Lebanon, mainly in the south. Notable among these is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), whose combatants are strategically positioned at the Naameh base along the coastal fringes between Beirut and the southern expanse. The group is also present in the Qusaya military base along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Similarly, Fatah al-Intifada, also known as the Abu Musa faction in honor of their founding leader Said al-Muragha who long opposed the leading Fatah faction, occupies positions near the Syrian border.

Pursuing justice and order in camp conflicts

In the past, these Palestinian military encampments served as key locations from which to repel Israeli advances and safeguard the Beirut-Damascus route in the Bekaa region. However, civilian urban growth around these bases, the maturation of Lebanon’s own indigenous resistance forces, and Israel’s impeded ability to attack Lebanon, have raised questions about the need for their continued presence. These developments have provided Lebanese politicians with a pretext to demand the decommissioning of the Palestinian factions – and even threaten the use of military force against them.

Despite the calm currently prevailing in Ain al-Hilweh, all sides warn that a new round of battles may erupt before control can be reestablished in the camp. Meanwhile, the Joint Palestinian Action Committee, which is made up of all Palestinian factions and enjoys official Lebanese cover, is working to implement the understandings stipulated in the final ceasefire.

In collaboration with the government-sanctioned Lebanese-Palestinian Dialogue Committee, they are working to hand over the culprits responsible for the killing of Brigadier General Armoush – the Fatah member whose actions ignited the conflict – along with other individuals wanted by the Lebanese judicial system.

Fatah has publicly accused a group of jihadists of killing Armoushi, and has expressed dissatisfaction with the concord between Hamas and the jihadists. Meanwhile, Hamas blames internal conflicts between Fatah leaders for inciting the outbreak of clashes in the camp.

An Israeli hand in the conflict? 

Sources in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) inform The Cradle that the recent events are part of a scheme to sow strife in Palestinian camps to benefit the Israeli enemy. The sources say that the Israelis and their local agents are using inter-Palestinian discord to subvert the Palestinian right of return and help uncover the Palestinian resistance’s weapons arsenal.

These sources further connect the latest clashes to the ramifications of the west’s decision to curtail financial support for UNRWA, the UN agency that serves Palestinian camps regionally, whose vital operations significantly waned during the tenure of former US President Donald Trump.

The clashes this time had a major political impact, given the political and security challenges that Lebanon is currently facing, daily violent confrontations with the Israelis in the Occupied Territories, the Fatah-Hamas struggle to control the West Bank, widespread speculation over a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal, and the notable lack of any “formal solution” to the conflict in Palestine.

Invariably, these critical events have also had internal implications on Lebanon’s political scene. Capitalizing on the chaos, traditional right-wing Lebanese Christian factions have renewed their opposition – not only against the weapons arsenals of the Palestinian factions, but also against the arms of the Lebanese resistance.

Last week the Lebanese army confiscated ammunition from an overturned truck belonging to Hezbollah in the Christian town of Kahale area, east of Beirut. Two people were killed after an exchange of fire between Hezbollah members and armed Christian residents.

A well-informed source within Fatah tells The Cradle that external actors orchestrated directives to the jihadist groups, with the explicit intent of provoking Fatah and tarnishing its reputation.

This calculated maneuver, it suggests, is part of an overarching scheme aligned with Israel’s objectives to destabilize and eventually dismantle the Palestinian camps in Lebanon:

“In 2007, the Nahr al-Bared camp was demolished after a war between jihadist groups and the Lebanese army. Today they are trying to do it again. Fatah is keen on the security of the camp more than everyone else. However, the wanted persons must be handed over to reduce tension.”

Conspiracy to dismantle the camp 

Importantly, the jihadist scene within the camps is not monolithic in its intentions. Asbat al-Ansar, a formidable Al-Qaeda affiliate operating in Ain al-Hilweh, has abstained from engaging in acts of violence for several years. It maintains minimal relations with the Lebanese political forces, and enjoys a robust relationship with Hamas.

Mohammad al-Saadi, also known as Abu Mohjen and the de facto leader of this faction, has played a notable role in tempering tensions, despite being sought by the Lebanese judiciary in connection with the mid-1990s slaying of four judges in Sidon.

The increased prominence of jihadist groups in the refugee camps is considered suspicious by many in Fatah and other Palestinian factions, given that it bolsters a narrative that the camps are a haven for terrorists.

Some Palestinian jihadist groups have denied any connection to the killing of Armoushi, saying that the perpetrators are Lebanese jihadists – a claim The Cradle could not independently verify.

A source close to Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a pivotal figure who has been closely involved in the truce efforts, informs The Cradle of a plan to destroy the refugee camp and involve the Lebanese army in clashes to undermine the right of return for Palestinians.

Disarmament debate 

Regardless of the direct cause of the clashes between the jihadists and Fatah, the fallout invariably casts a pall over Palestinians in Lebanon. Instead of steering discourse toward securing Palestinian rights and integrating their arms into Lebanon’s defense strategy, the recent events have renewed calls for a compromising barter between their rights and their weapons.

In practice, civil rights without weapons may embolden Israel and its western allies to believe that the Palestinians have given up their right of return. On the other hand, weapons without rights – and without organizing them within a comprehensive defensive strategy – allow terrorist groups and right-wing forces to incite against the Palestinians.

For parties close to the Lebanese resistance, the demand for Palestinian disarmament is believed to be a prelude to the demand for the disarmament of the Lebanese resistance.

Recently, it was reported that the PFLP-GC handed over some of its weapons to the Lebanese army. But prominent sources in the group confirmed to The Cradle that this transfer involved obsolete weaponry, particularly batches of surface-to-surface missiles. The sources emphasize that handing over Palestinian arms is an issue related to the conflict with the enemy, and not a barter over Palestinian civil rights.

Ain al-Hilweh’s legacy of resilience 

Members of various Palestinian factions tell The Cradle that, besides Israel, an increasing number of Arab and regional states are seeking to influence important West Asian issues, including that of the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. The financial support of Qatar for the jihadists is but one example; Doha’s salaries to these foreign militants, they say, are far higher than salaries paid by Fatah.

Suspicions also swirled around the visit of Palestinian intelligence director Majed Faraj to Beirut, which took place just days before the clashes erupted. These allegations are unsubstantiated, however, with no credible sources affirming a link between the visit and the subsequent turmoil.

Ain al-Hilweh remains an important symbol of resistance. When, in 1982, the Israeli military descended upon Beirut, the camp managed to stand firm against the onslaught, resolutely thwarting Israeli troops while inflicting many casualties upon their ranks.

Today, trapped within the vortex of Fatah-jihadist power dynamics, the question asked by many is: Will the internal clashes destroy the camp when the entire military might of Israel could not?

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